If you live in Asheville, you’ve probably taken a drive through it many times. Say, you’re headed to the Beaver Lake Bird Sanctuary for a Sunday stroll after a brunch downtown. It is a section of Merrimon Avenue that begins descending in elevation starting somewhere about the time you reach Brookstone Church (formerly Merrimon Ave. Baptist Church) and ascending once more once you reach Chatham Road. This is called the Woolsey Dip. Today, the intersection of W.T. Weaver Boulevard and Merrimon Avenue sports several retails shops and restaurants and feels essentially a part of the central part of the city.
120 years ago, however, this was not the case. The people of this posh residential suburb of Asheville had declared themselves an altogether separate entity and embarked on self-governance. Initially the tiny town was called Ramoth after the large estate of James
Confederate Veterans gathered for a reunion at Ramoth Place, the home of James Mitchell Ray. B711-8.
Mitchell Ray. In the 1890s, the townspeople of Ramoth voted to change the name to Woolsey to honor Charles W. Woolsey who at one time owned an elaborate and eccentric home, called Witchwood, in the town.
Right now, you’re probably wondering to yourself, “Where does Jackson Park come in?” This is something we wondered ourselves. When we set out to make our list for the 52 Weeks, 52 Communities series Jackson Park was one of the neighborhood names we weren’t so familiar with. In researching, we discovered that probably had to do with the community’s multiple name changes over time.
The title “Jackson Park” came along in 1912 when real estate developer Robert R.
Reynolds purchased a large piece of the W.E Barnard estate. He had the acreage subdivided into 124 home sites, and named the new development Jackson Park. Like many developments of the early 20th century in Asheville, it was marketed as posh and progressive. Reynolds advertised the suburb’s proximity to famous and well-to-do neighbors such as Karl Von Ruck and Chase Ambler, two of the area’s leading physicians.
Jackson Park was a desirable place to live because of its reputation as an already well-established neighborhood. One fine feature of the community was a town hall erected in the Woolsey era. Built in 1896, the people of Woolsey built the town hall and intended that it have multiple uses. According to a March 1896 newspaper announcement, the hall would “immediately become useful for the transaction of public business and for the meetings of citizens desiring to foster the growth of the town and further the public weal.” Certainly, it did.
In December of that same year the tiny Woolsey town hall found itself the platform for one of the most important debates in the history of the United States: Woman Suffrage. Indeed, the very first meeting held in the freshly built town hall gathered community members together to hear about “the interest and right of suffrage for women.” According to the Asheville Daily Citizen the hall was at capacity.
The program was given by two women, Mrs. Floride Cunningham of South Carolina and Miss Helen Morris Lewis.
Lewis, a native of Charleston, SC, had made Asheville her home for several years along with her younger sister, Raven. Before settling in Asheville, Helen traveled the Southeast working as a lecturer and actress, reciting Shakespeare and other works in packed-out theaters and opera halls. A Pennsylvania newspaper described her as “A brilliant and trained artiste,” who “acts to perfection,” and “dresses elegantly.” Her background as an
elocutionist allowed her to stand before large audiences and express herself with grace and ease. Helen and Raven Lewis made their first visits to Asheville on trips with their grandmother after fleeing to Aiken, SC from Charleston after the Civil War. When their grandmother died, the women returned to Asheville. At that time, the city was beginning to enter a period of rapid growth as the completion of the Western North Carolina Railroad attracted new industry and tourism. By 1900, finding themselves, like many women of that era, with no source of steady income, the Lewis sisters began teaching music and opened a boarding house on Bailey Road in Deaverview.
Helen was not simply content with living out her days quietly in the mountains. Lewis wanted to leave a mark on the world and influence women’s lives for the better. As early as 1894, Helen gathered a coalition of some of Buncombe County’s most influential citizens, including Thomas W. Patton, to speak at the Buncombe County Courthouse in the affirmative for women’s suffrage; a full 26 years before the 19th amendment was actually ratified. Lewis’ remarks at the inaugural gathering at the Woolsey town hall reflect her zeal for the cause of “Votes for Women.”
“Deprived of our suffrage, we are in a measure deprived of our personal freedom. What freedom have they who live under laws in the making of which they have no voice?” She continued, “Many think that women are too weak and incompetent to perform great things… American womanhood has preserved our homes untarnished and is destined to prevent the country from sinking further into the mire of politics.”
Though the Woolsey town hall was full that December night, Miss Lewis and Mrs. Cunningham managed to increase the roll of the North Carolina Equal Rights Association by only three persons. However, their fight did not end there, and their impact on the women’s suffrage movement was not insignificant. Lewis was so influential that, in 1896, that she won five unsolicited votes for the United States House of Representatives.
In 1899, Lewis became the first woman to ever seek elected office in the state of North Carolina when she launched a campaign for City of Asheville’s Superintendent of Waterworks. Her platform was based on the idea that if Asheville was to clean up its water and streets, it was up to a woman to take on the task. Unfortunately, her campaign was unsuccessful, and interest in the suffrage movement in Asheville began to wane as political allegiances shifted.
Indeed, the movement that Helen Morris Lewis began in Asheville was the first of its kind in North Carolina. Though it had a rough go at first, Lewis’ work paved the way for other women after her. It was not long before another Asheville woman, this time, a Buncombe County native, picked up the torch and ran with it, founding the Asheville branch of the National Women’s Party in 1915, the same year she was admitted to the bar. Five years later, she was the first woman in the South to be elected to a legislative office.
Lillian Exum Clement may have been the first elected, but Helen Morris Lewis paved the way at the Woolsey town hall (which once stood in what we now call Jackson Park).
As a reminder, this post is a part of our 52 Weeks, 52 Communities Series. In this series, we are covering a different Buncombe County community each week. Do you have materials related to Jackson Park/Ramoth/ Woolsey or some other Buncombe County community you’d like to let us know about? Do you, your parents or grandparents have a good story to tell? Please let us know! Be sure to also check out the North Asheville Community History Project for stories about Jackson Park and the surrounding area. We want to hear from you! The North Carolina Room is Buncombe County’s Public Archive, we want to help preserve and make accessible the history and culture of Asheville and Buncombe County for all its residents.
This post was authored by Katherine Calhoun Cutshall, a librarian working in the North Carolina Room at Pack Memorial Library. Usually she hates the idea of time travel, but if she could go back anywhere, and be anyone, she would be a suffragette.